The World Council of Churches’ (WCC) recent appointment of the controversial Reverend Professor Dr Jerry Pillay as its incoming Secretary-General, is a disturbing and potentially dangerous development for interfaith relations between Christians and Jews and the promotion of peace in the Middle East. Pillay has publicly expressed anti-Jewish sentiments, shown support for the antisemitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and repeated anti-Israel libels on numerous occasions. As WCC ‘CEO’, responsible for all staff and work, inevitably, its programme under Pillay, will reinforce a pro-conflict, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic platform. One can only assume that this appointment is a deliberate and intentional act to stoke anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment among Christians, and it is tragic that the WCC’s appointment sets the organisation in this direction.

In 2014, Pillay vented over the  “exclusionary and violent character of the Israeli Zionist project”  whilst endorsing the extremist anti-Semitic BDS movement, whose goal is singlehandedly to destroy the world’s only Jewish State. In 2016, he spoke of how “Jewish leadership” influenced European countries to create a Jewish State “on the land of Palestine”. A man promoting such hatred towards Jews and their homeland, who promotes millennia-old conspiracy theories about “Jewish power” should not qualify for such an esteemed role at the WCC.

Pillay lauds his credentials as an anti-apartheid activist in the 1980s and maintains this was an expression of his faith. As such, Pillay should be well aware of the difference between the struggles of black people under the boot of a nationalist government, bent on separation and denial of rights based on race and colour; and the democratic state of Israel in which all citizens have equal rights and opportunity, no matter race, colour or creed. He shows disrespect for those who suffered and died under apartheid. He forgets that most Jews were anti-apartheid and that many were prominent activists.

Apartheid was a crime against humanity. The Israel-Palestinian situation is not, in international law, nor should it be. As a man of God, Pillay’s faith, integrity, sense of justice and honesty – and respect for the law – should enable him to comprehend the truth. Instead, Pillay has jumped on the false apartheid-label bandwagon of antisemitic groups he endorses such as BDS, which are determined to destroy the Jewish homeland.

The WCC is the leading body of Christian faiths around the world, in 120 countries and representing some 580 million people. Its voice counts and its policies have influence. This appointment is either a deliberately hostile act or one which is highly irresponsible. Either way, it could have far-reaching negative consequences for Jews and Palestinians alike.

Recently Pillay has sought to distance himself from his publicised anti-Jewish views saying that he strongly advocates for, “Jewish people preserving their identity and practising their religious beliefs and values.” This is disingenuous and misleading. He has also said that he stands behind the United Nations resolutions “on the occupied territories” and “behind the WCC policies on the Holy Land, which call for an end to the ‘occupation’, and advocates anti-Zionism.

In his 2016 essay, “Apartheid in the Holy Land: Theological reflections on the Israel and/or Palestine situation from a South African perspective”, Pillay uses his Christian voice to delegitimise the Jewish state, a member of the United Nations since 1949 and with diplomatic recognition by 165 of the 193 member states. He disregards the global definition of antisemitism, introduced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and recognised by many leading organisations.

In the same essay, Pillay overlooks the Palestinian violation of the 1947 United Nations resolution 181 (the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states) and accuses anyone drawing attention to Palestinian terrorism against Israel’s citizens of “demonisation”. Yet, in response to this Palestinian violence, he merely asked “all concerned to refrain from hostilities”, (rather like the SA government’s ambiguous comments on the Russian invasion of Ukraine). His essay was a deliberate and calculated attempt to denigrate Israel.

He claims to seek “justice and reconciliation”, but the tone and content of this essay and other pronouncements belie the hypocrisy of this statement. He, like members of other anti-Jewish groups, maintains the falsehood that only one side, Israel, is to blame for the decades-old conflict. For there to be any kind of rapprochement towards peace, abdicating one party of responsibility while blaming the other is counterproductive at best and incendiary at worst.

The WCC and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) are members of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC). In 2016 the ADL expressed its disappointment at the WCC for placing all accountability for the continuation of the Israel-Palestinian conflict solely on Israel. Later, in 2019, the ADL celebrated a thawing in relations between it and the WCC and was cautiously optimistic that relations with Jewish organisations could be nurtured through thoughtful and continuous dialogue. The Pillay appointment undermines this optimism.

Today, many Christians embrace the Jewish origins of their faith and recognise Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, celebrating the return of Jews to their ancient, indigenous country. Pillay has promised to challenge this and has accused Christian supporters of Israel of the “wrong theology”. Clearly, Pillay is a divisive figure whose appointment undermines progress to peace and enlightenment. 

Israel continues to prosper on the world stage. The Abraham Accords, signed between Israel, Morocco, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have brought normalisation in regional relations, and initiated trade and other development agreements. The Accords are a successful outcome of Israel’s diplomatic efforts.  Bilateral ties with African countries continue to deliver mutually beneficial progress. The WCC should note Israel’s growing regional and international importance and seek to improve rather than damage relations. 

As SAFI, we will be watching WCC activities, programmes and communications carefully. We will not stand by and allow the painstaking moves towards peace to be destroyed by Pillay and his followers.

A first step would be the rescinding of Reverend Professor Dr Jerry Pillay’s appointment to the position of Secretary-General of the WCC.

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Pamela Ngubane

Pamela Ngubane is General Manager at South African Friends of Israel, an organisation promoting peace in Israel and the Middle East, and interfaith relations between South Africans.

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1 Comment

  1. Could it be that WCC in reality beats on both sides of the drum? Either that or they didn’t do a good job of vetting Pillai’s application.

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